When It Comes To Wine, What's The Point Of Points?

By Staff in Food on Jun 6, 2014 4:00PM

I was in a wine shop recently and I overheard a patron say “I only buy wines that score over 90 points.” Aside from making that person sound like a complete wine snob, it's also a ridiculous thing to say. I wanted to ask if this person could really taste the difference between an 89 point and a 90 point wine. I'd be willing to wager he couldn't. I didn't ask of course, but the unasked question got me to thinking about wine rating scores. The more I thought about it the more useless they seemed.

Let's take a step back and look at where these ratings came from in the first place.

It all goes back to 1959, when Dr. Maynard A. Amerine, Professor of Enology at the University of California at Davis and his staff developed what became known as The University of California at Davis 20 Point Scale System Organoleptic Evaluation Scoring Guide For Wine, or more simply, The Davis System.

It's a pretty straight forward system that gives a certain number of points for ten categories which are then totaled to obtain the overall score of a wine. The categories are:

Appearance (2 points maximum) - The clarity of the wine.
Color (2 points maximum)
Aroma and Bouquet (4 points maximum)
Volatile Acidity (2 points maximum) - Basically Vinegaryness. If the wine doesn't smell of vinegar it gets 2 points. Slightly vinegary wine gets 1 point, and if it smells like vinegar it gets 0.
Total Acidity (2 points maximum)
Sweetness/sugar (1 point maximum) - How does this balance with the acidity?
Body (1 point maximum) - Mouth feel and alcohol present in the wine.
Flavor (2 points maximum)
Astringency (2 points maximum) - Basically tannins.
General Quality (2 points maximum) - Completely subjective.

Total these scores, and wines are rated as such:

17 - 20 Wines of outstanding characteristics having no defects
13 - 16 Standard wines with neither outstanding character nor defect
9 - 12 Wines of commercial acceptability with noticeable defects
5 - 8 Wines below commercial acceptability
1 - 5 Completely spoiled wines

This system was generally accepted until the mid-1970's when Robert Parker, famed wine critic and founder of The Wine Advocate, and his wine tasting buddy Victor Morgenroth, realized that the 20 point Davis System was subtracting points from a wine, and that felt negative. After all, wine was supposed to be fun and convivial. They thought that deducting points for qualities a wine did not have didn't make as much sense as awarding points to a wine for its merits. After toying with a variety of other scoring systems they finally settled on a 100 point scale. This system gives a wine 50 points for being, well, wine. It then awards up to 5 points for color and appearance, 15 points for aroma and bouquet, 20 points for flavor and finish and 10 points for overall quality. This system became wildly successful due to its societal significance, primarily because anyone who went to an American school can understand grading on a 100 point scale.

Due to this success, a number of other publications and critics have adopted the 100 point scale, most prominently Wine Spectator magazine.

As the US wine market grew and consumers became more and more interested in wine, these ratings became very important. Let's face it, when you buy a bottle of wine you've never tasted before, you're making a gamble. “Will I like this wine?” And with the way wine prices have skyrocketed, any bit of information you can get your hands on about the quality of what's inside that bottle helps. Now, Parker presents us with a super easy to understand number that is based on societal significance and - BANG! - you know what's inside and you trust the source. The power of these scores has gotten so important that it's actually changed wine itself.

Make a wine that scores 90 points from either Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator, it will likely sell out, and fast! This means potentially millions of dollars for the winery. The flip side of that coin is that a score as low as 85 points can have a devastating effect on how the wine sells. That's why you see those signs at wine shops yelling out “RATED 90 POINTS!”

This phenomenon had another, perhaps even more significant effect on the wine industry. Winemakers, realizing what importance a score of 90 or more had to their bottom line have been accused of reverse engineering their wines to contain the traits of similar wines which scored 90 or higher in the past. These wines tend to be low acid, super ripe wines with strong oak and extract characteristics that are high in alcohol.

Look at a current vintage wine today. It's unlikely you'll find it under 13.5% alcohol, and more likely, it will be above 14 and even approaching 15%. Back in the late 1980's and early 90's wines were almost always around 12.5% to 13.5% ABV. Maybe you would occasionally find, say, a California Zinfandel clocking in over 14% or 15%, but that was the exception rather than the rule. You could argue there are a variety of other reasons that wines are increasing in ABV, but there's no doubt that what's called the Parkerization of wine has had at least some effect on rising alcohol levels.

In wine circles over the past few years a lot of talk has been around score inflation. In an article about wine score inflation in the March 2, 2013 Wall Street Journal, the esteemed Lettie Teague compared wine scores to school grades “One of the biggest problems in education today is grade inflation and the devaluation of the B grade, according to education expert Wendy Mogul.” Wine critics, their editors, and publishers learned that people like to read high scoring wine reviews more than they like reading low scoring reviews. I mean, I'm likely to read the review because I'm interested in buying that wine. So why would I read that review of an 85 point Napa Cabernet if I could read the review of a 91 point Napa Cabernet from the same vintage at about the same price?

In a completely unscientific bit of research I went back to the June 30, 2000 issue of Wine Spectator. In it, 438 wines were scored. Included among these wines was a vertical of Krug Champagne, none of which score below a 92. The average score of a wine reviewed in that issue is 85.93. Cursory looks at other issues from this era reveal similar scoring. I then went to the current issue, June 15, 2014 and of the 618 wines reviewed the average score is 90.25, north of that magical 90 point line that wineries yearn to be above.

Here is what Wine Spectator says its ratings mean:
95-100 Classic: a great wine
90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
50-74 Not recommended

While not identical, the ranking system used by Parker is virtually the same.

I then went back and looked at every issue of The Wine Spectator published this year. Of the hundreds and hundreds of wines reviewed in the five issues this year, only two wines received a score of 80. A mere handful were between 81 and 84 points and no wines were rated 79 or below. In that one issue from 2000 however, 26 wines scored 79 or below. 26 wines! One wine, the Australian 1998 Cockfighter's Ghost Semillon, Hunter Valley was scored as low as 72 points. In today's market that wine might as well be used to strip paint because it would never sell if the score were revealed to the consumer.

So, based on the above scale, this year Wine Spectator has not tasted one wine that it rates as less than a good, solid, well-made wine. Not one. It could be argued that the skills of today's wine makers and the farmers who grow their grapes are on a level that far exceeds those of the people doing the same jobs 14 years ago. But when you think about it, it's as if today Wine Spectator gives 75 points for the product just being wine. And then another 5 points if it isn't horrible wine. It's important to note that both Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate taste the wines that they are scoring blind more often than not. Blind tasting means those who are tasting do not know what the wine is when they score it. Also, typically the wines being scored are submitted by winemakers and distributors.

Next, I looked at wines on the very top end of the scale to see if their scores have changed over time. I took the 1999 Wine Spectator Top 100 issue in which it reveals the top 100 wines that it finds most interesting. These aren't always the highest scoring wines of the year but the top scorers are almost always included in the list. In 1999 the average score of the Top 100 wines was 92.37. In 2013 the average of the Top 100 was 93.88, only a 1.5 point jump. So it's not like the top end wines are being rated significantly higher by Wine Spectator.

If no wine tasted this year by Wine Spectator scored less than an 80 and the maximum score is 100, then what we're really dealing with is a 20 point system. Exactly what Parker and Morgenroth rallied against. Add to that the fact that only a small handful of wines fall between 81 and 84 points, it's really closer to a 15 point scale. Then take into account that only rarely does a wine exceed 95 points and all of a sudden what you, the consumer, are looking at is only a 10 point scale between 85 and 95 points.

Now, knowing what we've learned about current scoring trends, what is the person who only buys wines scoring over 90 points really buying? He has no idea, because he's only looking at a number that actually says very little about what's inside the bottle. Even Robert Parker admits that the score does not tell the whole story, “Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine's style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential, than any score could ever indicate.”

Scores say nothing about a wine’s characteristics. You'd never say to a sommelier “I feel like something 91ish; they go so well with beef.” Look, you can have two 2010 Chardonnays that both score, let's say, 92. One from Napa, that's loaded with new oak, is very buttery due to 100% malolactic fermentation, is super fruity, with an alcohol level of 14.9 %. The other wine, same grape, same score, is from Chablis, in Burgundy, and it expresses intense minerality, virtually no oak, no malolactic, comes in at 13% ABV, and has strong acidity. Same grape, same vintage, same score, completely different wine.

So, you see, the score is really only part of the equation you should follow when choosing a wine, and quite frankly, the score should be among the last things you consider. In fact, while talking with one of my wine pals about shopping for wines and the effect scores have on her choice she tells me that “price, varietal, appellation, and other factors will trump a two-point difference in rating.” Basically points mean little to nothing to her.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many areas around the globe, like Southern Italy and Jura in France produce many outstanding wines that rarely get rated at all. If, while shopping for wines, you're only looking at scores, you might be overlooking not only some great wine, but some great deals.

Finally, and this is a biggie, when you see that sign touting a score on a particular wine be very careful to see where that score came from. Often, the retailer will assign a score to a wine. They know what a “93 point” wine sells like, so that score may not always come from a reliable source. Of course after reading all this you already know that the score isn't the end of your search and you'll be considering other, more important factors when buying your next bottle of wine.

By John Lenart